Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Milton Propper - The Divorce Court Murder (1934)

Milton Propper is an author whom I find especially troubling. I thought that the first book of his that I read was "okay". "Meh" was how I felt about the second. However I rather enjoyed my third and fourth encounters with his Tommy Rankin series (even the one with the railway time-table...shudder!) which raises the question: were these Proppers better than the earlier ones I read or had my critical faculties (providing I had any to begin with) taken a long vacation? Contrary to his meagre critical reception, I think that his mysteries do have some merit.

The Divorce Court Murder provides an interesting look into the mores of 1930s Philadelphia. Surprisingly, the setting is not a law court but rather the offices of a legal firm where the socially prominent Adele Rowland is suing her husband for divorce, bringing evidence against him that he has been carrying on an extramarital affair with her secretary, Jill Edmond. It is this accusation of adultery that results in the case being heard in a private law office:

"Rankin was sufficiently familiar with the peculiar divorce law of his state...In Pennsylvania , the proceedings were generally private, instead of being held in open court before a judge and jury. Some member of the bar, called a 'master', was assigned by a justice to listen to the facts of the complaint, and present his findings to him; the court usually followed his recommendation, whether for or against the divorce...With one exception this system did not preclude jury trials where both parties preferred one. There could be no public hearing, if the grounds involved such details of immorality, profligacy or unchastity as to make their disclosure prejudicial to public morals."

Initially, Allan Rowland made no attempt to contest Adele's suit but, as the story opens, he is now attempting to take advantage of another peculiarity of the divorce law; if both parties have been unfaithful, the divorce will not be granted (the reasoning being that divorce is a privilege and will only be granted when the parties deserve one) and he has brought a witness with him to testify that his wife has also been involved in an adulterous relationship. When his lawyer attempts to bring her from another room where she has been waiting, the witness, the equally socially prominent Barbara Keith, is discovered chloroformed to death. Suspicion is then divided among Adele, her lawyer, her alleged lover and Keith's husband who is also discovered to have been in the law offices that day.

As in the other Propper titles, the investigation is carried out by the youthful looking Tommy Rankin who, lacking the brilliance and insouciance of other detectives of his era, relies on perseverance and thoroughness to solve his cases. While Propper is often maligned for his lack of characterization, Rankin and the other characters who populate The Divorce Court Murder are no worse than many British "Inspector Mundane of the Yard" mysteries although his prose will never be considered stylish or witty. While Propper is occasionally praised for his plotting (Francis M. Nevins contends that "his best books hold some of the intellectual excitement of the early novels of Ellery Queen"), I'm not sure that I found all the twists and motives of TDCM entirely credible but the mystery was a fairly engaging puzzle for the most part.


  1. Enjoyed the review. Propper's idol was Freeman Wills Crofts and he seems to have been the closet American imitator. One imagines him poring over Crofts' mysteries in college in the 1920s, when he was quite a young man.

  2. Do you have the Armchair Detective issue with the article by Nevins in which he discusses all the Propper books? I'm guessing that's where you got that quote. Though he could have written something else over about Propper over at Mystery*File. That's the article I used as my guide in choosing the first Milton Propper book to read. Unfortunately, I tired of it halfway through. Even though it seemed to be going somewhere and was intricately plotted it just had no life in it. And Hankins seemed so naive to me. I like the sleuth to be sharp-witted or eccentric or witty. Hankins showed none of those traits. It did have a big section on railway schedules and I actually liked that part! One of the conductors is questioned and in coming up with his answers he had to recall how the train travelled, what unusual things happened in the routine trip, in order to remember the passengers. The people came second, the rain and its route came first. I liked that insightful observation of how a railway employee might use his memory.

    I have about eight of Propper's books and I bought them primarily because Propper is one of the few gay mystery writers from the Golden Age. I thought he might sneak in some subversive commentary in them. He had a terribly lonely and tortured life in his final years -- drinking heavily, picking up young men, and finally committing suicide. I may never know if his personal life found its way into any of his books now because I just can't bring myself to finish THE FAMILY BURIAL MRUDERS when there are so many other books waiting for me. A shame too since Mike Nevins says it's one of the best of all of his books.

  3. I got the quote from the same review as you read at Mystery*File (wish I had that issue of TAD).

    I haven't, in the five books of Propper's that I've read, come across anything that I would interpret as gay subtext although I've read one commentary on The Student Fraternity Murders that claims otherwise. Personally I found the claim rather reaching.

    And I can commiserate on you owning 8 books of an author with whom you're not enthused. I have at least 14 unread Lee Thayers!

  4. Lee Thayer can be kind of fun in the alternative sense. Have yet to read one by her that's actually good however.

    John, I think you might actually prefer the later Proppers, which I think break a bit more away from Crofts schematics. Crofts really is the best at that sort of intensive timetable mystery.

  5. I did enjoy the last Thayer I read in an alternative sense (although it's been so long I can't remember the title...) but when she's bad, she's awful which makes me wary of her mysteries.

    But since starting this blog has encouraged me to dig into my stacks perhaps I'll take a risk...